Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.
Week 187: The Old Way (2023)
There aren’t many good Westerns made these days and from the looks of the trailer The Old Way wasn’t going to be one either. However, I’m happy to report that the Nicolas Cage-starring Western (his first of two due this year) is in fact good.
The trailer sold The Old Way as an action-packed, shoot ’em up. It isn’t. It has far more dialog than it does fire power and, for this viewer/filmmaker, that’s a good thing. If last year’s Dead for a Dollar is a throwback to the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott pictures, then The Old Way is a nod to 60s and 70s Westerns, not of the hippie variety but the sturdy genre entries that starred the likes of Charles Bronson. Cage recently cited Bronson as an influence for his performance here. I see it in his subdued delivery which only gets Cagey for a few exaggerated lines. His performance is grounded, true, and other than a flashy opening sequence (and a terrible mustache) he is believable as a frontier killer.
Of course, his performance wouldn’t work without good co-stars and he’s paired with two of them. Ryan Kiera Armstrong might be the brightest young actress I’ve seen in years. She has a hard role to play, a child who is unable to feel grief, forced to ride alongside her violent father and grow to adult maturity in a matter of days. Armstrong pulls it off, showing superb wit and intelligence in her delivery. On the other end, Cage is paired with screen veteran Nick Searcy, an actor I had the honor to work with for Terror on the Prairie. Nick is excellent here; I’m no expert on the actor’s filmography but this is the best work I’ve seen him do thus far. His lawman is thoughtful and his scenes are poignant. From the moment he steps on screen, I felt the assurance that comes in the presence of a great, experienced actor.
Is The Old Way profound? No. Is it a defining entry in the Western genre? No. But I don’t think that’s what we need. At least, it’s not what I’ve been looking for in the recent output of Western films. Myself and others I know long for the well-made Western, the kind that was plentiful in the days of old. The kind with no complicated plots or stylish photography. The kind with no pretentious ambitions or overt cultural message. The Old Way is that. Director Brett Donowho and writer Carl W. Lucas have crafted a refreshingly simple film with few subplots, a character-based adventure, a movie that relies on the strength of his performers instead of the power of its pistols. And essential to any true Western, the film wrestles with the idea of justice, right and wrong, and the individual’s moral code.
If I have any complaints about the picture, it’s that they miss a few key story beats between father and daughter that really could have elevated their relationship to another level. I won’t spoil those here. Also, Nicolas Cage’s hat is hard to look at. It is truly the worst mistake by everyone involved in the production. Someone should have shot that hat right off his head… but I encourage those who care about period authenticity to put some of those concerns aside and watch a film that gets the Western right for once.
Watched at Icon Cinema in Colorado Springs